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Bizarre Love Triangles

August 9, 2010

[Originally posted at popscribblings.com]

When the Twilight phenomenon hit years ago, I couldn’t understand teen girls’ delirious obsession with the love triangle at its center. Edward was dark, moody and involved with dangerous people, Jacob was sweet and blandly attractive with a hot body, and Bella was the girl caught in the middle. It didn’t seem that there was much there to be so passionate about.

And I worried that a generation raised on Twilight was learning that death-defying infatuation was what defined love, that such pithy Edward declarations like “you are exactly my brand of heroin” is what these girls would hope to hear from future partners.

Then I remembered that there was a love triangle I was engrossed with when I was in high school: Sonny and Brenda and Jax on the soap opera General Hospital. And it had the exact same dynamics.

Sonny: dark, moody mobster involved with dangerous people

Jax: sweet and blandly attractive billionaire with a hot body

Brenda: girl caught in the middle

Oy. The similarities were enough to make me press the pause button on my judgmental attitude and think about what I found so compelling about that trio. What if my teenage self wasn’t so different from the Twi-hards after all?

In the nineties, General Hospital was the best series in daytime, and home to soaps’ first supercouple, Luke and Laura Spencer. They are still the most famous duo from daytime, but Sonny Corinthos and Brenda Barrett are a close second. The two were dynamite–they were simply explosive together. I’ve watched more than my fair share of TV shows and movies, but I can’t think of a single couple that can match Maurice Bernard and Vanessa Marcil’s onscreen chemistry. He had had the dimples and devilish smile, she had the dazzling looks and the impish giggle. For a 14-year-old raised mostly on ABC’s TGIF lineup, watching them banter and trade smoldering looks was a revelation.

But despite how charismatic and attractive they were, there was also an ominous dark side. Since he was a mobster, Sonny had a lot of mobster baggage, usually involving his loved ones getting shot or blown up because of their connection to him. I can see that what made people love Sonny and Brenda as a supercouple was how dangerous it was for them to be together. They were constantly in peril, which meant they were constantly professing their love for each other, most memorably after a gun chase through the streets of Puerto Rico that ended us with a sexy, From Here to Eternity-style kiss on a beach.

As must as I enjoyed their star-crossed lovers’ storyline, I never once remember aspiring to want something similar to it. Even as a kid I recognized he was too dark, too controlling, and Brenda spent a lot of her time either chasing after him, talking about him, or crying about him.  Theirs was never a relationship of equals.

Jax, like Jacob, is the afterthought to the two main characters’ love story, the consolation prize when the main man is unavailable. They’re both Prince Charmings–uncomplicated nice guys thoroughly devoted to the girl in question, and thoroughly despising of their rivals. Bright, cheery and eager to please, Jax was one of the most literal knights in shining armor I’ve seen depicted in pop culture. After Brenda was nearly killed (due to her relationship to Sonny), he whisked her off to Malibu to help her heal. In fact, he was also always taking her away from trouble to exotic locales, and she basked in the attention even if her mind was on someone else.

If the main tenet of Brenda and Sonny was danger, then Brenda and Jax’s was rescue. He was constantly saving her from bad guys and mental breakdowns (also due to her relationship with Sonny). Brenda and Jax had their own easygoing chemistry that was fun to watch, but eventually Brenda became an object that Jax was determined to win over with fantasy dates and ripped abs. Theirs was not a relationship of equals either.

So if this love triangle was problematic, why was it so enthralling? One simple reason: Brenda. In the Twilight series, Bella is mostly defined by her relationship to Edward and her reaction to the conflict she is thrust into, and it’s hard to understand who Bella is beyond her feelings for him.

Brenda, however, existed in a universe beyond the two men who wanted her. The reason I enjoyed General Hospital so much in its nineties heyday was that all the characters’ relationships were given their due, and they had their own storylines beyond romantic entanglements. Brenda’s appeal was not just her beauty (Vanessa Marcil has a Dorian Gray-esque ability to never age), but her charisma with everyone on the show, from the crusty patriarch to the brain-damaged hitman. For a character that was the beating heart of daytime’s biggest triangle, it was also wonderful to see how highly she valued her friendships. As a teenager I had the same satisfaction seeing her spend time with her pals Robin and Lois as she did with her men.  To this day I’m still not sure what Edward and Jacob see in Bella, but at least I know why Sonny and Jax were all about Brenda.*

[*The above paragraph does not include her abbreviated return in 2002 , in which she was a self-absorbed damsel in distress that needed saving from the bad guy obsessed with her…by the good guys obsessed with her.]

After several years off, Vanessa Marcil has returned to General Hospital, which ABC is treating with the same degree of excitement as a George Clooney return to E.R. As Brenda-mania threatens to sweep daytime again, I can think back on my younger self’s engagement with the show and recognize that I truly found it entertaining and memorable, but at no point did it inform my impressionable sensibilities about the nature of love. I still have fond feelings for the show, but I can now look back and what worked about the love triangle, and what did not.

So I’ve dropped my judgmental attitude towards Twi-hards. Teenhood is the time when we fall in love with love, and it’s a lot of fun to so, especially when we’re growing up and trying to figure out what life is all about. But I hope that once the sparkly sheen of the Twilight saga has rubbed off a bit, fans can look back at the series and its message more objectively. Because love can be defined in many ways–but heroin should not be considered one of them.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. evmaroon permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:25 pm

    I love this! I used to watch General Hospital, I admit it. I want to see more bizarre love triangles!

  2. August 9, 2010 12:27 pm

    I love how the soaps focused on teen storylines during the summer. It’s a very savvy way to encourage younger audiences to cultivate a taste for the shows.

  3. August 9, 2010 9:55 pm

    For a while I was actually working for a company that did synopses of the soaps for people… ostensibly, I was getting paid to watch the soaps, and I actually did enjoy covering the ABC beat and most especially General Hospital… I even wrote lyrics to the show’s theme song back then:

    “In Port Charles
    You’ll find a hospital there…
    And when you go,
    they’re gonna give you the best of care…

    The Quartermains, the Cassidines
    The Spencers and the rest…
    With their violence, love and sex!
    Things never are dull…
    When you check into
    General… Hospital!”

    Amazing what useless stuff is up in the attic! But anyway, the other element that was going on was Carly, played by Sarah Brown. Carly was a freak show with her whining about the baby and her constant on cue crying, but what really was freaky was when Sarah left the show and she came back as a different character that interacted with Sonny… AND CARLY, the new girl that had taken the role.

    Soaps are interesting for a lot of reasons, but they really resemble a baseball lineup. Some players are just replaced with other people… like Lucky Spencer who was brilliantly played by Jonathan Jackson and then replaced by the himboish Jacob Young! What a farce! While other characters retire with a bang in some sort of death situation (where, of course, the body is never quite found) and then they either return as themselves or as their evil twin that only a handful of people knew existed.

    But this doesn’t really speak to your triangle pattern, and I should say something about that. Absolutely the decision is age old and classically drawn. Nice and safe v. bold and dangerous. Of course the choice is easy, especially on a soap. If everything is nice and easy, that’s not a soap, that’s a 1950s sitcom! Nice = stagnant and that means we’re not selling products!

    There are a few people who are lifers on daytime television. Lucci, Slezak, Geary. They may have appeared in prime time or even in roles in film on occasion, but we all know who they are. It’ll be interesting to see how Marcil’s return to GH will go, what sorts of storylines she’ll have and whether she’s back for the long haul, or another “acting exercise,” like when she went all “United States of Tara” for about a year on her last go.

  4. August 10, 2010 4:46 pm

    @evmaroon I’m always amazed by how many people watched the show, and the variety of people too. It’s too bad that it’s been turned into a soapy version of the Sopranos, but without the good writing or interesting characters.

    @Snarky’s Machine Very good point! I think the Antonio Sabato Jr. storyline got me watching as a teen. (Jagger and Karen!) It’s funny to think that the summer tradition of roping in teen viewers with storylines created just for them isn’t relevant anymore. Kids aren’t home and bored without entertainment options the way they used to be, but the soaps continue the tradition nonetheless, which is cool.

    @NYCPenpusher The song lyrics are hilarious! You’re right about love triangles being formulaic by nature, which fits soap storytelling perfectly. And the baseball analogy is spot on too. But your description of Vanessa Marcil channeling “United States of Tara” is AWESOME cuz its so true. I can’t stop laughing thinking about it. Hopefully she’ll do better now than her last time on the show.

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